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It’s All About the Little Things

February 7, 2013

As a volunteer or someone who does other activities in part for the good of doing them, it’s easy to feel under-appreciated. “Because it’s the right thing to do” only carries so much weight when you’re walking to the Metro in the rain, your vegetable crop has all been eaten by bugs, or the event you worked so hard to organize has a much lower turn-out than you expected. While you would derive complete satisfaction from serving others in an ideal world, it can get exhausting without a little reinforcement in the real one. Because of this, an unexpected word of support is incredibly refreshing.

Sometimes the encouragement is from a stranger. Having a little girl walking by my garden tell me, “I like your vegetables” is one of my favorite compliments of all time. I couldn’t be prouder of my garden if it was Mr. Omnivore’s Dilemma himself commenting on it. Similarly, I greatly appreciated it when a random driver came up to me and commended me on my use of hand signals on my bike. “It made it really easy to see where you were going,” he said. While I mainly use signals for my own safety rather than the convenience of others, it was still nice that he recognized that effort. Of course, I’m always very grateful for positive feedback after I organize workshops or bike rides. Events take a lot of time and effort to put together and it warms my heart to know that people enjoyed them. Even long after the ride, I’ve had a couple of different participants recognize me around town and ask if we’d be doing more of them. While it’s wonderful to have people thank me right afterwards, it’s even more fulfilling to know that they remembered it several months later.

In these cases, I value the recognition because the person giving it is doing so out of pure appreciation. They have nothing to gain from it, in the moment or in the future. I also like how these comments bind us together as part of a larger community. In the case of the little girl and the driver, they reached out to me despite a differing identity – from non-gardener to gardener, from driver to cyclist. When it’s so easy to set up an “us vs. them” attitude, these comments showed that even if they didn’t participate in the activity, they appreciate those of us who do.

Other times, the emotional helping hand is from a fellow organizer or volunteer. The other day, I received a wonderfully kind card from the chair of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee. It expressed how much she’s valued my work over the last two years and knows that while I’ll be less involved once Chris and I have the baby, she hopes that I’ll still find some time to participate. The card was completely unexpected and absolutely made my day. Even now, just thinking about it makes me smile.

In contrast to the one-off comments from strangers, I knew this one came from more substantial observation. Knowing that Nancy recognized my hard work over a couple years means a lot to me, especially when it’s easy to take volunteers for granted.

All of this is to say, the next time someone has a garden or a bike ride or a volunteer effort that you really appreciate, say so. The more detailed and unique the compliment, the better. You never know the effect it might have.

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